Follow the Stories | Savanah, Georgia (2004)
A Wild(life) Italian Surprise
It was the summer of 2003 and Frank and Mary Finocchiaro had to make a decision before they left the house to go to the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, which was coming that day to Savannah, Georgia, where the couple lived. What should they bring to be appraised? They knew they could bring two pieces each, and they decided on a Hudson River School painting, a Royal Doulton vase, and an amber necklace. As the fourth piece, they had to decide between two bronze statues that Frank's mother had left to the couple: a pelican or a jaguar.
What happened to the spectacular bronze pelican brought to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW?
Frank decided on the pelican for a simple reason: it weighed less.
They went with a few assumptions about the statues, which the couple had kept on a mantelpiece in the den for six years. They thought both pieces might have been Welsh because his mother received the pair in the late 1960s from a woman who was from Wales. Frank also thought they might be Asian.
"We couldn't make out the signature," Frank said. "We thought it was a series of Japanese characters." The couple thought the big cat was a jaguar or a panther, and Frank assumed that they were worth about $500, maybe $1,000, each.
During their on-air appraisal, Eric Silver, director of Lillian Nassau Ltd. in New York City, disabused Frank of the misconceptions about the bronzes. The pelican was not made by a Welshman or Japanese sculptor, but by a well-known Italian sculptor, Rembrandt Bugatti, a sculptor who worked in the early 1900s and became known for his vibrant bronze animal sculptures.
Bugatti came from a famous family of Italian artists who worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "His uncle was a famous Italian Impressionist painter named Giovanni Seguantini," Eric told Frank. "His father was Carlo Bugatti ... who made this fantastic, sort of Middle Eastern-style furniture that was covered in parchment and copper, and all kinds of wonderful jewels. He also had a brother, Ettore Bugatti, who was the well-known Italian car designer, one of the greatest car designers ever."
Rembrandt Bugatti specialized in making wonderfully finished bronze sculptures of animals. "He worked in this impressionistic manner, almost like the Impressionist painters," Eric says. "He was able to capture the spirit of the animals."
Eric also told Frank on-air that the two bronzes were very, very valuable. Eric estimated that the pelican was worth between $20,000 and $30,000; the leopard — it was a leopard, not a jaguar — was worth at least $100,000 if it was also by Bugatti.
Frank was stunned. The two statues had spent a good dozen years in the attic before he and Mary had put them out. "A few years ago someone broke into our house and stole things of no value, except maybe some of my wife's jewels," Frank told Eric. "They took all of my underwear, and these things were laying around ... Do you know what the first thing I'm going to do when I go home? My son, who's in the insurance business, is going to reinsure the contents of our house."
After Frank and Mary returned home they had to decide what to do with their newly discovered heirlooms. Frank considered keeping them, but it was a passing thought. "If it had been something in my mother's family it would have been different," he says. "And if I had been a person of means, I would have kept them. I work for a bank, and a person who works for a bank doesn't make a lot of money. I figured a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I think what we did is what my mother would have wanted."
Besides, the couple had four grown kids, and they knew that two valuable statues divided between four children makes for a potentially messy inheritance. "They get along fine and I always want it to be that way," Frank said.
Now it came time for the couple to test the statues' value on the marketplace. "Several of my friends said, 'You never get the values they give on-air. They just say that to make people feel good.'" The family investigated several auction houses and settled on Sotheby's in New York City. Frank considered traveling to New York with Mary to watch the December 2003 auction. "We thought about going, but I thought doing so would bring bad luck." Instead, Mary called a phone number provided by Sotheby's and that was then they discovered that the two pieces sold for a combined price of $132,500. "We were delighted," Frank said. The December auction sale, he said, "was like a Christmas present." He divided the money among Mary, himself, and the four children. "They all have families, and they appreciated what we gave them," Frank said. He and Mary spent some of the money, taking a cruise to Nova Scotia. "I hadn't been on a cruise since I was in the Navy in 1945," said Frank.
Frank also put a little away, taking the advice his mother once gave him. "My mother always said the time to save money is when you got it."
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.